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Beck Harvests Some West-Coast-Folkie Sunlight on the Stark, Lovely ‘Morning Phase’

Beck / Photo by Krista Schlueter
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: February 24, 2014
Label: Capitol

Before considering whether Beck’s first album in six years is really Sea Change II (spoiler alert: not exactly), a slight detour into armchair psychology seems in order. No matter what you think of Beck Hansen the artist, be he trendsetter or trend-follower, much of his recorded artistic trajectory seems to derive from early audience encounters when he was little more than a baby-faced cassette terrorist donning stormtrooper masks and riffing surrealistic rhymes about burger joints, the better to keep the hecklers quiet.

Unfortunately, the same aw-shucks dada tricks that helped our young Lafayette Park busker gain a foothold among troubadour-wary L.A. audiences eventually limited his expressive options: Fellow ironists hoping to see more of the boho weirdo who crashed MTV’s 120 Minutes didn’t know what to make of the country songs relegated to the middle of this supposed slacker’s messy art-junk concerts. Beck has since glumly noted that his attempts at acoustic sincerity in those days confused attendees to the point of disinterested moshing or hurled projectiles. Rarely again would he make the mistake of mixing bricolage with personal confession.

What nearly everybody forgets about Beck is that he’s always been a folkie, and a Californian one at that, although he’s never once pretended to be a blues scholar in the manner of John Fahey, always tempering his purist tendencies with a love for West Coast singer-songwriter craft. Despite Sea Change‘s reputation as a radical departure for the beat-loving hipster upon its 2002 release, he’d already made motions in that direction four years prior via Mutations, a folk-rock collection that included the swirling strings and oceanic acoustics of the achingly sincere “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” while also supplying enough detours into Tropicália and Weimar cabaret to convince know-nothings it was little more than a place-holding side project (a legal kerfuffle between Geffen and Bong Load Records didn’t help matters). But what Mutations suggested, Sea Change insisted upon, with its glacial tempos and steadfast avoidance of sarcasm, all midnite-vulture tendencies walled off to ensure no heckling or moshing out of turn. It was either Beck’s high-water mark or a somnolent retreat into the easy pleasures of songform.

Morning Phase is all about songform, too, and the similarities with Sea Change are so obvious they almost beg to be glossed over, from the rainbow smear of colors distorting the artiste’s mug on both album covers to the nearly identical band utilized on each. Yet where the older (now decade-older, in fact) record famously arose from the ruins of romantic breakup, this new one follows a six-year silence in which Beck busied himself with scattershot side projects, producing full-lengths for Stephen Malkmus and Charlotte Gainsbourg, presiding over rock-geek giggles like the Record Club, and apparently sustaining a spinal injury he’s only now beginning to talk about.

So despite obvious parallels with his previous all-acoustic anatomy of melancholy (and with morning/mourning puns duly noted), this isn’t really a descent into the funereal. This is Beck the Echo Park hoodrat shrugging aside the multicultural L.A. Basin he once supposedly exemplified in favor of the toked-out vibrations of 1970s Malibu, Topanga Canyon, and Point Mugu. The sympathetic may hear strains of prime Gene Clark or Neil Young; those less inclined to wax rhapsodic over Ventura Highway overlooks might find themselves grumbling about the boring Dylan of New Morning or David Crosby’s meandering If I Could Only Remember My Name.

With tempos this sluggish, Beck does risk those Croz comparisons, but Morning Phase‘s SoCal vibe is far more than simple pastiche. Along with the leader’s acoustic shimmer and nearly nonstop reverb, a virtual slice of L.A. rock society lends its pedigree to proceedings, beginning with drummer Joey Waronker, son of famed A&R rep / Warner Bros. head honcho Lenny (see Van Dyke Parks, Nancy Sinatra, Little Feat, Randy Newman). We continue with hand-picked guests Jason Falkner (the Three O’Clock / Jellyfish), Greg Leisz (Dave Alvin’s collaborator from the King of California days), and harpist Stephanie Bennett (an in-demand Hollywood session player) — hell no, this isn’t some scrappy indie band. Finally, add the massed stringworks arranged by Beck’s father, David Richard Campbell, once again making explicit his son’s jones for Serge Gainsbourg’s 1971 Histoire de Melody Nelson, in which Jean-Claude Vannier’s rich orchestral swoops memorably overlaid the Frenchman’s delirious tale of an unrepentant Humbert Humbert type.

All those Gainsbourgian strings certainly aren’t propping up any feverish narrative here, however — anybody looking for Beck the abstruse poet will be as disappointed as those hoping he’ll break out some old skate-punk moves. A few fleeting instances of sound poetry aside (“guns are falling”; “a symbol of your exegesis / And a full-length mirror”), these lyrics are simplistic to a stark degree: Of the 15 lines making up the yawning “Wave,” four of them consist solely of the word “isolation,” begging comparison to Dylan’s equally minimalistic “All the Tired Horses.” And the few times verses do get specific, they’re yoked to prosperity gospel homilies (“turn away from the weight of your past”; “cut me down to size / So I can fit inside”). Yet it’s all suggestive of a careful effort to cull unnecessary flourishes, especially when Beck’s rare references to familiar cultural totems avoid nearly any context, as see a “Blue Moon” owing nothing to either Elvis Presley (an earlier nod to a “lost highway” likewise exists worlds apart from both Hank Williams and David Lynch).

The only lyrical theme appearing with any sort of consistency, in fact, involves the sun’s angle and repose (“reaching for sunlight,” “high as the light of day,” “rays of the sinking sun,” “when the morning comes to meet you”), SoCal imagery that nicely compliments the obvious homages made throughout to various Laurel Canyon artifacts. In case you think this overstates the case, some grad student could easily assemble a decent dissertation proposal on Morning Phase‘s similarities with Neil Young’s Harvest alone, from the tangential (both sessions plagued by back injuries) to the sequential (the mostly-acoustic Harvest eventually spawned all-acoustic sequel Harvest Moon decades later) to the specific (Waronker’s thud-thud-chick drum patterns on “Country Down” eerily echo Kenny Buttrey’s on “Out on the Weekend”). But there are also broader nods to ’60s icons like George Harrison (album closer “Waking Light” finishes with Abbey Road guitar flourishes), the Byrds (“Blackbird Chain” contains hints of Roger McGuinn’s circular “Bells of Rhymney” riff), and, perhaps most surprisingly, Simon & Garfunkel (those choirboy harmonies adorning “Turn Away” only highlight the lovely melody’s debt to “El Cóndor Pasa”).

What does all this studio perfectionism add up to? A sun-kissed stroll through gentle waves of melody, serenity for those seeking some winter light, and sleep aids for those who think West Coast rock went off the rails between the formation of CSN and the first rumblings of X. (Those sympathetic to the latter philosophy may not find much to snicker about when Beck notes, “I need to find someone to show me how to play it slow,” quite possibly the only joke on an album claiming few grins.) But jokes aren’t the point, and neither is BPM. No matter how enthusiastically some claim Beck as a zeitgeist-embracing pop chameleon of the Jean-Luc Godard variety, he’s far more a craftsman of the Louis Malle school: sophisticated, assured, self-aware, and incessantly torn between competing genres.

For all his voracious appetites and pomo tendencies, he has steadfastly embraced the path of the old-fashioned artist, conceiving his statements as distinct self-contained entities, with side projects scuttled off to the margins and consistency of mood a necessity. Whether he had an epiphany beneath that stormtrooper mask long ago or simply prefers a tidier oeuvre for his eventual biographers, he remains conceptual to the core. If UV-induced bliss strikes you as a worthy enough concept for immersion (and why shouldn’t it), well, submit to the reverb.